Ciara MaCooey, Managing Director of Automation at Foundry4

Universities and Colleges up and down the country are facing a watershed moment. A rapid transition to online learning against a backdrop of financial insecurity has contributed to a testing year for the sector. 

Although there is no quick fix for alleviating the impact that Covid has had on universities and colleges, operational resilience is mission-critical to weather the current storm.

While universities and colleges have proven their ability to expand their educational offering online at breakneck speed, there is also much more opportunity for digitally transforming back office operational functions. 

Ensuring these institutions can adapt to the changes in how education is delivered now and in the future, will rely upon pressing forward with their technological transformation. Automation can deliver some of that resilience that is so desperately needed by taking the pressure off overstretched staff.

The pandemic triggered long-term changes in the way these further education institutions deliver their service. There is a challenge at hand to bring students up to speed with their courses, and universities and colleges will need to forge their back-office operations into the digital age to resist the inevitable bumps ahead.

This being said, it is not all doom and gloom for these institutions who, despite the onslaught of obstacles they have been dealt, have shown that transformation in the face of adversity is possible.

Universities and colleges have had to grapple with significant financial difficulties for quite some time. Estimates by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that further education has faced the biggest cuts in recent years, with a 12% fall since 2010, and the UK higher education sector faces losses ranging between £3bn to £19bn in 2020-21. Due to a lack of investment into universities in the past year and a ramping up of their pensions offering, many institutions have little in the way of cash reserves. 

 To add to this frustration, it is often the menial and administrative processes that consume a significant amount of time and resources, which can and should be automated.  This is not about reinventing the wheel, but freeing up time for overstretched employees and funding for the institutions themselves, thereby improving the university experience across the board. 

Administrative tasks are typically repetitive and time consuming and human error creates frustration which can negatively impact employee wellbeing. Taking this burden off their shoulders and digitising a tedious task amplifies the vital work that is being done by the back office teams at higher education institutions.

The human element of higher education is what makes it so memorable but behind the scenes, there are numerous, necessary processes that keep everything running smoothly.

The University of Plymouth is a prime example

University of Plymouth trim

The university’s student numbers are growing and investment in research activity is increasing. 

While this is great news for the university, it puts added pressure on the finance team whose administrative workload has increased dramatically as a result. Many of the University of Plymouth’s processes are highly manual, meaning time that could be better spent on the services that add value, is wasted on administrative tasks.

The successful automation of finance processes has enlightened the University of Plymouth to the potential for technology to augment jobs in back office roles. Their original goal of providing the equivalent return of 2.5 full time employee hours per year has been achieved by successfully deploying a ‘bot’ to the more mundane day to day tasks that have to be carried out by the finance team. 

This has led to a reduction in manual handling for staff in the team while providing additional benefits such as reducing error rates, building in additional resilience within the team by removing critical points of failure, and improving student satisfaction with quicker response times.

The University of Law has also found significant benefits in automation


They have to run an individual report for each cohort of each course to generate each individual student's results to show what marks they got on each module. The ‘bot’ takes a sign off and runs the required reports, and generates the individual transcripts. To date, this is estimated to have saved the institution over £60,000, and crucially freeing up time for precious face to face teaching.

Intelligent Automation has the proven potential to spearhead meaningful change, and the work with the University of Plymouth is a case in point.  While University of Plymouth focussed on back office functions - there are also applications where this has been used in student-facing roles. For example, in transferring significant teaching resources to online platforms. This is ordinarily a time-consuming process, but intelligent automation is a tool that is making it more efficient to offer a smoother experience for academics, students and administrative staff. 

Against a backdrop of reduced income due to falling international student numbers universities have had to create Covid-secure campuses in an attempt to facilitate in-person teaching. Creating schedules of lectures, seminars and classes can be a challenge at the best of times for administrative staff. Technology can make the process more efficient, given that Covid-19 brings additional strain, with social distancing limiting class sizes and cleaning rotas to be taken into account. Streamlining the drier aspects of a job has a profound impact.

In order for universities and colleges to weather the financial challenges that the pandemic has impacted upon them, technology must be embraced wholeheartedly. They must be able to not only survive this storm, but come out of it with improved efficiency and greater resilience. Livelihoods rely on these institutions, be it for an education, employment or invaluable research. 

This is also an opportunity to give back. Many universities have been central to the pandemic response, working around the clock to lead the hunt for ways to treat or prevent Covid-19.  By automating the mundane process that keeps things ticking over in the background, much more valuable time can be dedicated to socially valuable work.  d. 

The next 2 - 3 years will be crucial in levelling the playing field for generation Covid and it will be no small task. 

To do this, we urge universities and colleges to continue their timely exploration of intelligent automation.  

Ciara MaCooey, Managing Director of Automation at Foundry4

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